THURS: New Rules Seek To Curb Oil Industry Emissions, Nursing Home Restrictions To Ease, + More

Mar 25, 2021


New Mexico Adopts Rules To Curb Emissions From Oil Industry - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico oil and gas regulators on Thursday adopted new rules to limit most venting and flaring in the oilfield as a way to reduce methane emissions.

The Oil Conservation Commission took the final vote, bringing to a close a two-year process that involved testimony from environmental advocates and technical experts from the oil and gas industry. Virtual public hearings also were held.

"I think this is a huge day for New Mexico," Adrienne Sandoval, director of the state Oil Conservation Division, said after the unanimous vote.

State officials are billing the rules as some of the strongest gas capture requirements in the nation. Unlike other states, New Mexico's rules also apply to the midstream sector, which collects natural gas from wells for processing.

State officials and other supporters also say the rules encourage innovation in the industry and will spur job creation for a new industry focused on methane tracking and control.

The first phase of implementation will include data collection and reporting to identify natural gas losses at every stage of the process. Once this information is in hand, regulators will then require operators — from those that manage pipelines to stripper wells and other infrastructure — to capture more gas each year. The target will be capturing 98% of all natural gas waste by the end of 2026.

If operators fail to meet the state's targets, regulators can deny drilling permits.

Sarah Cottrell Propst, head of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, said the rule-making process has been long and thorough.

"The 98% capture is an ambitious target that will secure significant methane waste reductions that will directly benefit New Mexico's environment," she said in a statement. "Oil and gas operations make up the biggest portion of greenhouse gas emissions in New Mexico and the rules established today will lead to reductions across the board beginning in 2022."

The rules are one part of a two-pronged approach by the state to address climate change. Still pending are rules being drafted by the state Environment Department that would target oilfield equipment that emits methane, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.

Michael Jensen with Conservation Voters New Mexico said the oil commission listened to many residents from communities that border New Mexico's oil and gas basins.

"We are hopeful that the Environment Department will take the next step and propose comprehensive rules regulating leaks from oil and gas facilities," he said in a statement.

The Environment Department has indicated the proposed rules could come before regulators in May, with a public hearing likely in the fall.

High Court: More Police Excessive Force Suits Can Go Forward - By Jessica Gresko Associated Press

The Supreme Court is siding with a New Mexico woman who was shot by police as she drove away from them, in a case that will allow more excessive force lawsuits against police to go forward.

The justices ruled 5-3 on Thursday that Roxanne Torres' suit could continue because she had been "seized" by police when she was shot, even though she fled. The five justices in the majority included the court's three liberals and two of its conservative members.

"The question in this case is whether a seizure occurs when an officer shoots someone who temporarily eludes capture after the shooting. The answer is yes: The application of physical force to the body of a person with intent to restrain is a seizure, even if the force does not succeed in subduing the person," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in an 18-page opinion  for himself, conservative Brett Kavanaugh and liberals Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The decision does not end the case. Roberts wrote that the "Fourth Amendment does not forbid all or even most seizures — only unreasonable ones." Lower courts will have to weigh in on the "reasonableness of the seizure, the damages caused by the seizure, and the officers' entitlement to qualified immunity," which could also end the case in the officers' favor.

When the case was argued in October, the Trump administration had urged the justices to side with Torres and send the case back to lower courts.

Torres was shot in 2014 when four members of the New Mexico State Police arrived at her Albuquerque apartment with an arrest warrant for someone else. Torres was in her car with the engine running when officers attempted to speak with her. But Torres, who was experiencing a methamphetamine withdrawal, did not notice them until she said one tried to open her car door. Thinking the officers were carjackers, Torres hit the gas. Two of the officers fired their weapons 13 times as she drove off. She was hit twice in the back.

Torres pleaded no contest to aggravated fleeing from a law enforcement officer and assault on a peace officer. She also pleaded no contest to unlawfully taking a different motor vehicle, which she took after she fled and used to drive to a hospital 75 miles away.

Torres sued officers. She claimed they used excessive force, making the shooting an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. A lower court ruled for officers and dismissed the case; an appeals court agreed. The Supreme Court's decision now lets the suit move forward.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

"The majority holds that a criminal suspect can be simultaneously seized and roaming at large. On the majority's account, a Fourth Amendment 'seizure' takes place whenever an officer 'merely touches' a suspect. It's a seizure even if the suspect refuses to stop, evades capture, and rides off into the sunset never to be seen again. That view is as mistaken as it is novel," Gorsuch wrote in a 26-page dissent.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett had not yet  joined the court when the case was heard on Oct. 14 and did not participate in the decision.

The case is Torres v. Madrid, 19-292.

Navajo Nation Reports 9 New COVID-19 Cases And 8 More DeathsAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported nine new COVID-19 cases and eight additional deaths.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's numbers to 30,031 cases and 1,243 known deaths since the pandemic began.

The Navajo Nation had a soft reopening last week with 25% capacity for some businesses under certain restrictions.

Still, mask mandates and daily curfews remain on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

"Here on the Navajo Nation, we continue to mandate the wearing of masks and other measures to help reduce the spread of the virus and to save lives. Now is not the time to let up our guard," tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement.

"We have to stay the course and keep pushing back on COVID-19... We cannot let the fatigue caused by the pandemic undo the progress we've made in terms of lower numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths," Nez added.

TV Series From 'Dr. Death' Podcast Being Shot In New MexicoAssociated Press

The New Mexico Film Office says a new television series based on a popular true-crime podcast by the Wondery network has started production in Albuquerque and Moriarty.

The UCP production "Dr. Death" stars actors Joshua Jackson, Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater and is directed by Maggie Kiley, So Yong Kim and Jennifer Morrison.

Film Office Director Amber Dodson said the series will be the first production to use NBCU's new studio in Albuquerque.

According to the Film Office, "Dr. Death" is about a neurosurgeon whose operations start going wrong, prompting intervention by two fellow physicians.

New Mexico Relaxing Rules On Nursing Home Visits In Pandemic - Associated Press

New Mexico is preparing to relax restrictions on visits to nursing homes and assisted living facilities as the spread of COVID-19 wanes and more people get vaccinated.

Aging and Long Term Services Secretary Katrina Hotrum-Lopez announced the new guidelines Wednesday in a news release regarding outdoor and indoor visitation.

Under changes that take effect Friday, the outdoors is still preferred for visiting residents of long-term care facilities because it poses a lower risk of virus transmission. But previously prohibited indoor visits will be allowed with rules on room size and occupancy. 

"We are seeing cases decrease and more people are choosing to protect themselves and their loved ones by receiving the vaccine," Hotrum-Lopez said in a statement. "This means facilities can safely start to offer in-person visitation options to their residents and their loved ones."

Prohibitions and tight restrictions on visitors were put in place last year amid dozens of deadly virus outbreaks at congregate living facilities for the elderly and disabled.

Under the new guidelines, fully vaccinated residents can choose to have close contact with visitors, including hugging or holding hands. Masks and hand sanitizing is still required.

Nursing homes will in some instances return to communal dining and social activities.

If an outbreak hits a facility, visits may be put on hold.

State inspectors who act as advocates for the residents of long-term care facilities also will be returning to in-person visitation.

The state expects to complete a third round of vaccination clinics at long-term care facilities by the end of March.

More Counties Reach Less Restrictive Status Under Health Guidelines – Santa Fe New Mexican, KUNM

State health officials released an updated COVID-19 map for New Mexico that shows 23 counties in less restrictive categories because of decreased virus risk.

The New Mexico Department of Health announced 13 counties are now at the turquoise level – the least restrictive under the state’s color-coded system. Those include Santa Fe, Socorro and Los Alamos counties.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports to reach the turquoise level, a county must have a test positivity rate below 5% and a per capita case rate of fewer than 8 per 100,000 for two consecutive biweekly map updates.

It means restaurants in those counties can expand indoor dining to 75% capacity and bars and clubs can operate at 33% indoor capacity.

There are now 10 counties in the green level, including Chaves, Rio Arriba and Taos counties.

Ten counties are in the yellow level, including the state’s most populous county, Bernalillo, as well as Sandoval and Doña Ana counties.

State health officials on Wednesday announced 218 new COVID-19 cases and 6 additional deaths.

The number of deaths of New Mexicans related to COVID-19 is now 3,909 and there have been 190,275 cases since the pandemic began.

People Downwind Of 1st Atomic Blast Renew Push For US Payout - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The president of the Navajo Nation, New Mexico residents who live downwind from the site of the world's first atomic blast and others renewed their push Wednesday for recognition and compensation from the U.S. government following uranium mining and nuclear testing carried out during the Cold War.

A congressional subcommittee was holding a hearing on who should be eligible under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Navajo President Jonathan Nez, the co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, a nuclear weapons consultant and an official from Mohave County, Arizona, were expected to testify.

Groups and residents have been urging lawmakers to expand the compensation program for years, and advocates say the latest push takes on added weight because the act is set to expire next year.

Communities downwind from the first atomic test in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, want compensation for health effects they say have spanned generations due to fallout from the blast, dubbed the Trinity Test. They say their communities have been plagued by cancer, birth defects and stillbirths.

Advocates also point to health problems among the Native Americans who worked in uranium mines that supplied materials for the nation's weapons program.

A multibillion-dollar defense spending package approved last year included an apology to New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and other states affected by radiation from nuclear testing over the decades, but no action was taken on legislation that sought to change and broaden the compensation program.

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, who sponsored the spending package when he was a member of the House, organized a meeting last summer with lawmakers, former miners, survivor groups from New Mexico, Idaho and Guam and others.

"If you listen to the stories of downwinders, it's clear that the Trinity Test unleashed a lifetime of illness and suffering for many New Mexico families," Luján after the meeting.

The compensation program covers workers who became sick as a result of the radiation hazards of their jobs and those who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site, where the federal government conducted several hundred nuclear explosive tests over four decades. Excluded are residents near the Trinity Site in New Mexico, others who were downwind in Nevada, veterans who cleaned up radioactive waste in the Marshall Islands and others.

The National Cancer Institute last fall issued a series of scientific papers on radiation doses and cancer risks resulting from the Trinity Test. Researchers said some people probably got cancer from the radioactive fallout that wafted across New Mexico after the bomb was detonated but the exact number is unknown.

People who were downwind of the blast in New Mexico were disappointed in the studies, saying researchers failed to do any new sampling but rather made "guesstimates" about the risks based on a review of existing scientific literature and an old fallout map. They argued that modern computer modeling may have helped provide a more accurate picture of how radioactive particles were disbursed given New Mexico's turbulent summer weather patterns.

New Mexico To Issue $600 One-Time Tax Rebates Amid PandemicAssociated Press

The New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department has started issuing $600 one-time rebates for taxpayers who are not dependents and who receive the Working Families Tax Credit.

The department said Tuesday that recipients must have an adjusted gross income of no more than $39,000 if they are married and filing as the head of a household, or $31,200 or less if they are single filers, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

The Legislature authorized the rebates earlier this year, more than 110,000 rebates worth more than $66 million have already been issued.

New Mexico's Working Families Credit is worth 17% of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit this year, department officials said. Qualifications for the state and federal credits are the same.

Taxpayers who filed their 2020 tax returns and are eligible for the rebates do not need to take further action. Rebates are expected to be either mailed or delivered by direct deposit.

Residents who have not yet filed 2020 tax returns and who believe they are eligible for the rebates should file as soon as possible. Filing electronically and using direct deposit can expedite the process.

Taxpayers who filed their 2020 tax returns without claiming the tax credit but who believe they qualify must file an amended return.

After 3 Days With No COVID Deaths, Navajo Nation Reports 2Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 10 new COVID-19 cases and two deaths.

It was the first deaths reported by the tribe after three days without any coronavirus-related fatalities.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's numbers to 30,021 cases and 1,235 known deaths since the pandemic began.

The Navajo Nation had a soft reopening last week with 25% capacity for some businesses under certain restrictions.

Still, mask mandates and daily curfews remain on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Tribal health officials say nearly 197,000 vaccine shots have been administered so far.

"COVID-19 is still in our communities and we can expect the number of new daily infections to fluctuate, but we cannot let another large surge occur," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. "Let's remain focused and keep taking all precautions to limit possible exposures and risks."

Agency: New Mexico Teachers Pension Fund Still Lacks Money - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

A top credit rating firm said Wednesday that New Mexico's teachers pension fund isn't collecting enough money to keep up with financial obligations for future benefits and suggests that a new contribution increase passed by the Legislature wouldn't close the gap.

In the analysis, Moody's Investors Service says a drop in interest rates is likely to hurt the funds' investment earnings from mainly low-risk fixed-income securities. It says a higher percentage of payroll needs to go to the fund to prevent an increase in the amount of unfunded future benefits.

"The gap between our tread water indicator and contributions amounted to roughly 5% of payroll," the report states.

New Mexico's state government is likely on the hook for pension liabilities because it takes responsibility for most K-12 school funding, the report said.

The Legislature sent a bill to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week that funds an employer contribution increase by 1% each year for two years from the current rate of 14% to 16% over a period of two years. Employees also pay into the fund.

Even if signed into law, the increased contribution would fall short of Moody's recommendation. That could leave a shortfall to be made up in other ways, such as increases in teacher contributions or reductions in future benefits. But constitutional protections may prevent those measures, and education advocates argue teachers already get weaker pension benefits than state employees.

It says that changes to accounting calculations in the new interest rates scenario are expected to lead to an increase in unfunded pension liabilities. Moody's did not issue a new credit rating.

The New Mexico Educational Retirement Board serves around 100,000 current and inactive educators and around 50,000 retirees.

An early draft of the bill would have increased contributions 1% each year for four years but it was scaled back.

A spokeswoman for the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board did not respond to a request for comment.

Small Plane Crashes In Southern New Mexico; 3 Aboard Injured Associated Press

The three people aboard a single-engine plane suffered minor injuries when it crashed Wednesday south of Lordsburg in southwestern New Mexico, authorities said.

Cause of the 1:30 a.m. crash was under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration which said the plane was on a flight from Fort Stockton, Texas, to Tucson, Arizona.

No identities were released and no additional information was immediately available.